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The Yin and Yang of Creating

By Robert Fritz

Yin and Yang, the idea of opposite but complimentary forces, has been popular in the West for many years now. Emerging from many Eastern traditions, it seems like a universal principle that is built into the fabric of the world. As in the Robert Frost poem West Running Brook, (a brook that is running in the opposite direction of all the other brooks which are running East):

It must be the brook
Can trust itself to go by contraries

Frost goes on to show how the nature of things is always something in contrast to itself, and that this dynamic is the source of life, "It is from that in water we were from long, long before we were from any creature."

Yin and Yang is a phenomenon in which a whole divides itself into two contrasting parts of itself: winter/summer, masculine/feminine, vacuum/ that which fills the vacuum, sun/moon, forceful/yielding, and so on. Of course, the idea of Yin and Yang is found most often in philosophy and religions such as Hinduism, Sikhism, Taoism, Buddhism, the I-Ching, and there is even a Western version of it in the Kabala. As a philosophical concept, Yin and Yang helps one understand the workings of the world through a universal principle. But when we think about the creative process, we can go beyond understanding into the realm of how to use Yin and Yang as an approach to creating.

The creative process is dimensional, not linear. That is to say, while some aspects of the creative process are sequential – first the vision, then current reality, then the action steps, etc. — other aspects happen simultaneously. And one thing that is simultaneous is creating's Yin to its Yang.

The Yang is the thrust of the creative process, focused on driving forward to realize and accomplish a specific outcome, perhaps a piece of music, a film, a building, a business, a product, some technology, etc. This element is highly focused, directive, active, generative, and goal oriented.

But the Yin within the context of this vigorous drive is a yielding open space, a vacuum, a kind of nothingness in which something may enter. It is non-directive and receptive.

Certainly this can be easily seen as the contrast between the masculine and feminine principles. But, as is usually the case, metaphors can give us the wrong impression by being close to what they are trying to express, without the precision needed to express it.

When we create, we are doing two things that can seem opposite. We are actively focusing the creative process toward a particular aim, the full manifestation of the vision, while, at the same time, allowing ourselves to be aimless and non-directive. We are narrow and wide, active and passive at the very same time. Examples of this state are found when we watch Tiger Woods play golf, or see the Rolling Stones perform, or view great actors, surgeons, writers, dancers, project managers, race car drivers, fighter pilots, Olympic athletes, and so many more professionals. These people have mastered the art of being completely focused, while at the same time, completely relaxed.

Too often people obsess on only one of the two parts of the Yin/Yang equation. Some make a point of being open and aimless to the point of not having an outcome in mind. Go with the flow, don't try to control, let it all hang out, wait for inspiration to hit. Others are will-power freaks, trying to overcome obstacles, attempting to stay positive, and trying to use determination and “commitment” to forge their way to success.

Neither approach can be productive. We need to have both elements, which means to narrow our attention on what we are creating, while, at the very same time, broaden our awareness to allow unimagined insight to surface.

Some people have created systems in which one is supposed to handle these two opposite gestures in sequence: first you are focused, and then you let go, and then you focus again. This type of system, while well intentioned, misses the non-sequential, multi-dimensional, and simultaneous co-existence of both active and passive. You need both control and lack of control to occur at once.

In music, there is a technique called circular breathing. You breathe in and out at the very same time. Because swing legend Tommy Dorsey could do this, he could hold a note forever it seemed. He would breathe in through his nose while simultaneously breathing out from his mouth.  And while this technique is simply an example of doing two opposite things at once, it can give us the impression of how useful it is to be able to do two opposite things simultaneously.

When we create, we can be both actively involved in the dynamic decision making process, with high levels of control, while at the very same time, be in a state of relaxation, passively receptive, relinquishing control, and able to let go of the vision we are so hotly pursuing.

While both the Yin and the Yang co-exist, sometimes we are more focused on one aspect than the other. And we may shift our attention often. Yet a true balance of both aspects of the Yin/Yang principle are in play the entire time, always playing an equal role in the creative process.

© 2009 Robert Fritz

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Updated: 10/24/10